Diana would "entirely agree with Harry's assessment of the royal family," says royals expert

Andrew Morton unpacks the "Cain and Abel story" of William and Harry, and how King Charles should conduct his reign

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 8, 2022 3:01PM (EST)

Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Princess Diana (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and Princess Diana (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The man is talking about "the pain and suffering of women marrying into this institution." The man is Prince Harry. The "institution" is his own family. 

It has been a transformative year for the British royals. In the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the ascension of her 74-year-old son Charles to the throne, the monarchy has entered a new and still undetermined era. But it's Harry "the spare" and his polarizing American wife Meghan who fascinate most. 

In many ways, the story of the "Harry & Meghan" in the new six-part Netflix documentary series seems to be a continuation of the one Diana left off. It's about the oppressiveness of family known as "the firm," about the fickleness of fame and the vicious hounding of the press, about private suffering and loss, and about forging a new path in a new nation.

And on the heels of all this tumult, author Andrew Morton, who has been covering the British royal family for 40 years, is back with a new book, "The Queen: Her Life." If you watched the new season of "The Crown," you got a peek into Morton's storied past as the biographer of "Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words" — and the writer whom Elizabeth Debicki's Diana refers to as "Clark Kent." 

Morton joined me on "Salon Talks" to discuss the legacy of Queen Elizabeth II, the "divisive character" of Meghan and why he thinks Diana "would entirely agree with Harry's assessment of the royal family."

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You have been writing about this family for decades now. What drew you to Elizabeth again for this book, and how did you want this to be that was different from everything else you've written about her before?

The idea was sparked by doing the previous book, which is on Elizabeth and Margaret, two sisters, both princesses, one who becomes queen, and their relationship. During the writing and research of that, I kept finding bits and pieces about the queen, and it seemed appropriate to try and look at the whole reign. As you rightly say, I've been writing about the royal family for 40 years now. It's a gig I never expected to do, but here we are. 

I found once you start to strip away the mask and the myth and the image, you find clues as to who the real person is. One of the things which really sucked me in was this sense that when she was Princess Elizabeth, she was a very reluctant future queen. She prayed every night so that her mother would have a baby boy so that he would jump over her in the line of succession. She was a very shy girl, very diffident. She deferred to her younger sister so that it would be Margaret who made the conversation. It was the queen who would stand in the shadows, as it were. 

"The twilight of her reign was, I would say, was probably her best years."

I found that very interesting, the trajectory of her personality. For this woman who was quite self-effacing to then take on this position as Chief Executive of Great Britain Incorporated in 1952 after her father's sudden death, was one hell of a burden. The book explores how she gradually changed to become a more relaxed monarch, a more inclusive monarch, listening less to what her mother had to say, less to what her father's memory had to say, and more about herself and her own instincts. And you see that gradually unfold during the reign. For me, that was the most interesting part, this trying to get a bead on this very difficult target, the queen.

As you point out in the book, this is a woman who was still coming into her own to the very end of her life.

The twilight of her reign was, I would say, probably her best years, where she took the chance to jump out of a helicopter during the London Olympics. She had tea with Paddington Bear. All these things, really truly humanized the queen and made her, made everything, "Oh, she's a different kind of person to the white gloves, big handbag, her hairstyle, a queen we've got used to."

Certainly her behavior during COVID-19 was true leadership, I felt. Even now when I talk about the queen and her We Will Meet Again speech, you get choked up, because she had made that speech at a critical time in world history, never mind British history, when the world was consumed by this killer pandemic which has claimed millions of lives. And she was there to give support. In a way, she was the only person who could do that. She'd lived this long life, this eventful life, this life full of crises and difficult decisions, and she was there supporting and nurturing her nation.

And also the strength of that speech and the strength of her persona right until the end. 

Right until the end. Two days before she died, she looked like kind of a member of the Hobbit family, didn't she really? That little elfin grin and walking stick. She looked marvelous, and yet sadly, she passed two days afterwards.

Got one more meeting with a Prime Minister in under her belt though.

Duty ran through her like Canvey Island rock, like a seaside rock. But also divorce ran through her reign, and it's one of the defining characteristics I think. She's someone who was very much against divorce, as was her mother and father. Yet she presided over the divorce of three of her children and also her sister in very difficult circumstances.

Let's talk about that, because this is where you step into the storyline, Andrew. I've watched the new season of "The Crown." It's a pleasure to be talking to Mr. Clark Kent. 

Yeah, he had more hair then. 

"There was a fairytale surrounding Diana that was wholly false."

You said that watching the way the Diana biography unfolded on the series gave you chills. Why? What about it brings back so much to you?

There was an intimacy about the scenes between myself and Diana, even though I didn't meet her during the whole process of writing the book. Famously we use an intermediary, Dr. James Colthurst. But just that interaction and the intonation, the mannerisms, even down to the paper used for the manuscript was so authentic that I felt that I was working with a ghost. I found it very moving. The whole drama is really to unfold Diana's character. Obviously, it's a compressed episode, because so many other things, so many dramas happened. But it was compressed in a way that tries to show her character. It was like listening to six hours of the tapes compressed into 10, 15 minutes or so.

There was so much about her not just as the Princess of Wales, but as a woman and as a mother, that was surprising to you. It was an education for you as a man, hearing this woman talking about postpartum issues, depression, suicidal ideation and eating disorders. What was it like for you to be the keeper of a very intimate story of a woman who also happened to be the Princess of Wales?

It was a great honor to be asked. And it was rather overwhelming to a degree, because you knew that this was a dynamite story, but you had to prove it independently of her saying it. So I had to speak to her friends and family and others. 

There wasn't the literature or the knowledge around in those days about what bulimia nervosa was. When I was researching it, I got a couple of pamphlets and that was it. There wasn't an awful lot about eating disorders. For me, one of the triumphs of the book is that so many women, some men, who did suffer, went for help. I think that's one of the things that Diana was delighted with. But there were so many secrets that unfolded. Remember, I had been part of believing in the fairy tale, and this is the whole crux of the whole drama surrounding it. There was a fairy tale surrounding Diana that was wholly false. It was a totally false narrative. We know about false narratives elsewhere, but this was a royal false narrative, and it took a long time psychologically for me to start to appreciate the true nature of her life. 

"This is an inflection point...where we are discussing ideas, concepts and policy that have been set aside for some years out of respect and deference to the queen."

This was exposed from time to time in real events happening in real time. When, for example, William got his head smacked in with a golf club accidentally and he had a fractured skull, Prince Charles arrived at the hospital along with Diana, and then subsequently Prince Charles went to the opera. Diana had to take comfort using a payphone, because in those days there were no decent mobile phones, to ring James Colthurst for help and advice on what she should do, what would happen if [William's] temperature rose, and so on and so forth. She didn't have her husband there. Her husband was off to the opera. This was well noted at the time, but it confirmed what Diana was saying, that her husband would rather do anything, other than spend time alone with her. 

I want to ask you about the king. We look at William and his charisma and the way that he is being groomed for the kingdom. Here's Charles, a 74-year-old man who is not entirely popular, who doesn't seem to have that kind of charisma. What do you think happens to him now in this new role as the king? Is there space for him to grow into that role? 

Just look at the history. Edward the Seventh took over from Queen Victoria and made a fist of the job, even though he reigned for a relatively short time, 10 years. He focused on diplomacy. He wasn't focusing on longevity, because he knew he would never outlast Queen Victoria. We have a similar situation with King Charles, that he's going to reign for what? Twenty, 25 years and then his son will take over.

That's a long time, Andrew. You're talking about a 100-year-old man.

Even if we say it's the same kind of reign as Edward the Seventh, say 10, 15 years, he's got time to make his mark in a different way. I would argue that he would probably focus more on cultural events and maybe even religious accord. He's talked in the past about not being the Head of State or the Defender of the Faith, but Defender of Faith. Even though he may not be able to say that constitutionally, he may try and do that as it were off the scene, so that he's dealing with Muslims and Jews and various other religions and creeds.

That's one area that he could well focus on, because the point has been made several times that Britain is a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, and the head of that society is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant family. So how do they make it so that they would reflect more of modern Britain?

There is this idea that the monarchy is passé. With the death of Elizabeth, this has come up again. What is the role of the monarchy? What is the role of the Commonwealth? How do we reckon with colonialism? Where do you see the monarchy going from here with King Charles?

It's one of the controversial points in "The Crown," the first episode where Prince Charles is trying to get the then Prime Minister, John Major, to twist the queen's arm to get her to abate, conversations that John Major said never happened. Nonetheless, ironically at the time, there was debate about whether the queen should step down now that she's got to 65. So as you quite rightly say, there's been debate about the future and the relevance of the monarchy throughout the queen's reign. I remember after my book on Diana came out in 1992, the Times and The Sunday Times organized a conference on the future of the monarchy, and it wasn't easy listening for the sovereign.

This is an inflection point. This is a point where we are discussing ideas, concepts and policy that have been set aside for some years out of respect and deference to the queen, and notably that is the commonwealth. Does the commonwealth continue in its present form? How many nations are going to say, "Let's just get our own head of state from our own country"? Perfectly legitimate ideas. There's the whole idea of Britain as a colonial power and making reparations. These issues will and have to be addressed, not just by the royal family, but by the government. 

"For Harry, that was the difficulty that he found, that he was incredibly popular, but he didn't have the position to translate that popularity into influence."

It is a time when the kind of historical chickens are coming home to roost, and the monarchy is part of that debate. How will it represent a multi-faith, multicultural society? I think that it's down to King Charles to show a degree of leadership in that.

You talked earlier about this white, Anglo-Saxon family. The king has a biracial daughter-in-law; he has multiracial grandchildren now. I want to ask you about Harry and Meghan and what happens now in this newly realigned, this newly rearranged family.

When I heard the title of Harry's upcoming memoir ["Spare"], I had to pick my jaw up off the floor. You and I have talked about the sibling dynamics in this family, what that means to be "the heir and the spare." We saw it with Edward and George, we saw it with Margaret and Elizabeth, we see it with William and Harry. What did you think when you heard about the book?

Exactly as you said, it will be a Cain and Abel story that is essentially the senior brother gets the money, the title, basically the job, that is to say the king. His life is pretty well defined from now until the moment he goes to meet his maker. For the spare, Margaret, George the Sixth and others, they've got to make their lives separately and there is no guidance. You've got to make your own mistakes. I think that for Harry, that was the difficulty that he found, that he was incredibly popular, but he didn't have the position, nor would he ever have the position to translate that popularity into influence.

You see in the title of the book, "Spare," the clue is that he'll be exploring that, or his ghostwriter will be. The other thing that is worthwhile mentioning, is that the book was written a long time ago before the queen died, and at a time when he was still smarting after the blowback from the Oprah interview.

Before the queen died, Meghan had been carving this individual lane for herself as a personality, appearing on magazine covers, doing her podcast. Now she is also the daughter-in-law of the king. She is also the sister-in-law of the future king. What does that do, particularly in the UK, for her impression there?

She's a divisive character, there's no getting away from that. She's also a divisive character in the U.S. She's earned the ire of former President Trump and she's taken what would be considered to be political stances. She's seen as essentially a progressive Democrat. That is her label. She has, it seems to me, done good work in terms of her Spotify, Archewell business. At the same time they've maintained links to the royal family, but not substantive ones. My spies at Hope Ranch, north of Santa Barbara, say that they've just bought themselves a new home there, and this is their forever home.

It looks like they're making their life in California. They don't use their HRH title, which is important. They're making a go of it as two individuals not linked to the royal family, just like Harry's mother did. [Diana] flew the nest and became semi-American in the sense that she spent holidays down here. She was thinking about buying a house here, and would entirely agree with Harry's assessment of the royal family.

Watching the drama of the Diana biography play out on "The Crown," I think about what a brave, bold thing it was for a journalist to have done at the time, to be that person who reached out to the Princess of Wales, and was entrusted with her story. What gave you that courage to reach out in that way, and then what it was like to get that response?

Well, just imagine if somebody else had done it and not me. I couldn't live with myself then. As a journalist, as a writer, it was a great opportunity and a great honor. Taking that on, you weren't thinking about the wider picture, you were thinking about when she said, "Do you want an interview?" I thought she'd be talking about charity work, her humanitarian mission, and I was totally wrong. The whole process was an education for myself about the nature of the royal family, the nature of the royal marriage, what Diana felt about her childhood, her school days. It was remarkably reckless and courageous of her to entrust her story with somebody that she didn't know particularly well. I'd met her a few times at cocktail parties, and the conversation had always been light, bright and trite about my ties or something like that.

Any moment I could have said, "Well, she's behind the book," but obviously the whole idea was to give her some kind of room to work out her own destiny. I think we did that. I think she did have that wiggle room, and I think that she stepped up to the plate with her husband and with the royal family and said, "Look, this is not working, I think we need to move on." In a way we're talking about the queen, her life, and she went back into her normal policy, which was to kick the can down the road and hope for the best, and hope that there could be some kind of reconciliation, as she did with Margaret and Lord Snowden. She urged them to try again, and who wouldn't do, given the huge responsibilities on her shoulders? But it didn't work. Looking back, it may well have been more prudent to have just ended the marriage quickly and come to an amicable settlement and move on.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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